• Grammar
  • 4 min read

Ten Ways to Quickly Improve Your English Vocabulary

When learning English, one of the most common complaints that speakers make is that they don’t have enough vocabulary. For many learners, reading doesn’t cause so many problems because they can recognize words when they see them, they just can’t recall the words at the right time when they want to speak.

In fact, language teachers talk about two different kinds of vocabulary: passive and active. Passive vocabulary means the words that you can understand when you see or hear them, or words you can understand from context. Active vocabulary means the words that you actively use when you speak or write. Unsurprisingly, it is active vocabulary that is much harder to build.

Also unsurprising is the fact that even native English speakers have much more passive vocabulary at their disposal than active. So building vocabulary is a challenge for everyone, especially when you consider that the English language currently has more than 170,000 words in active use, and that number is growing all the time.

So, what can you do to quickly improve the amount of English vocabulary that you have? Here are some practical suggestions:

1) Write down useful words when you hear or see them

Many of us are guilty of the assumption that we will just be able to ‘remember’ words when the time comes. The fact is, usually we can’t.

Remembering words requires a process, and one of the most effective is to write the word down. But then make a sentence using the word, and to truly remember it in the future make sure that the sentence you create has some relevance to you and your life.

2) Be really selective

One of the biggest mistakes language learners make is that they don’t prioritize the words that they need to learn. When there are more than a million possibilities, you have to be extremely clear about which words are going to be useful for you and those words which won’t be. Here are a few simple questions that will help you decide:

Is it a word I have seen or heard often?

Is it a word that is practical for me to use?

Am I learning the word because it is interesting or because it will help me communicate?

3) Learn word families

An effective way to learn vocabulary quickly is to learn words that are part of the same family. What does that mean? Here is an easy example:

Root word: organize

Word family: organized, disorganized, unorganized, organization, organizer

Simply by introducing a few prefixes (before the root word) and suffixes (after the root word) you can create a whole new range of vocabulary with ease.

4) Learn words that are related by topic

Here’s a quick test. Look at these ten words, look away and then see how easy it is to remember them all:

Group 1: habit, wardrobe, speech, satellite, mystery, chase, surprising, towards, neglect, storm

Now try these words:

Group 2: wind, rain, hurricane, tornado, tsunami, drizzle, blizzard, hail, blustery, overcast

You will find the second group of words easier to recall because there is a connection between them all (they are all related to weather).

5) Learn definitions

By downloading the Linguix extension for Chrome, Firefox or Edge you can get definitions of words anywhere online simply by hovering over the word in question. With definitions you get meaning, and with meaning you have more chance of remembering. Still follow some of the other steps on this list (make an example sentence relevant to you), but with a clear definition of the word you stand more chance of adding it to your active range.

6) Learn synonyms

In a similar way to learning word families or words that are connected to each other, learning synonyms is an effective way to expand your vocabulary quickly. The Linguix writing assistant also provides a handy list of synonyms for any word you decide to hover over. In this way you can pick up five or six words for the price of one. And very often the key to fluency is being able to express the same idea in different ways. That’s what synonyms allow you to do.

7) Hear the word

Nothing can be quite as memorable as sound. Think how you will never forget a song, even if you have only ever heard it once. Hearing a word pronounced helps store it deeper in your consciousness. Plus, it is important that you hear the correct pronunciation so you are able to say the word correctly too. Most online dictionaries will allow you to hear the pronunciation of the word you need.

8) See the word

Seeing what you are saying will also help cement that word in your mind. So, look at the word written down for a start, and practice writing the word several times so the habit becomes more natural. Additionally, when storing the word, add a little picture of your own so you can easily identify it.

9) Use the word and 10) get people to help you

Nothing works quite like actually using a word. So say it. Find a reason to. Look for any opportunity to say it out loud. The process of ‘mega-drilling’ recommends that we repeat the word up to 30 times.  And one last thing. Tell the people around you what you are trying to achieve and they will help you find situations to use the language you need. 

So there you have it. Eight simple ways to expand your vocabulary quickly. And remember, you don’t need to know one million words to be an effective English speaker.

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